Tent camp converted to safe lot for vulnerable

Photo by Jessica Brodkin Webb An area that had recently served as a makeshift campground for people without shelter has been converted into a parking lot for overnight sleeping.

County District 2 Supervisor Joel Anderson drafted a Memorandum of Understanding in April calling on individual municipalities and the county of San Diego to each identify and facilitate emergency and permanent housing to reduce homelessness in East County.

On Aug. 10, the county opened the first of those ventures: a new Safe Parking lot for homeless East County residents at the site of a former tent-style encampment which had sprouted beneath the freeway overpass on North Magnolia in unincorporated El Cajon.

The lot, which opens nightly at 5:30 p.m. and must be vacated by 7 a.m. the following morning, has 17 spaces available by referral only from the county’s department of Homeless Services and Equitable Communities, facilitated by non-profit Dreams for Change.

During an April 29 press conference held at the lot, which was still a tent encampment at the time, HSEC Community Operations Officer Barbara Jiménez said partner agencies including the county’s office of homeless solutions, contracted outreach groups, the sheriff’s Homeless Assistance Resource Team and others had been on site throughout April to provide services.

During those outreach visits, she said, stakeholders gathered feedback on how to structure a more permanent solution to dismantle the tent city of homeless residents from across East County.

Four months later, the reworked parking lot is a first attempt at establishing a safe place for homeless East County residents to spend the night alongside readily available social service information in an attempt to break the cycle.

The lot is “a step in the right direction,” Anderson said.

Overnight guests at the newly carved-out space will have access to restrooms, receive two hot meals, and will be given a free YMCA membership so they can utilize those facilities during the day.

The lot “will be a low barrier site with a housing first model”, Dreams for Change Founder Teresa Smith said. Onsite Dreams for Change case managers will assist individuals with housing navigation and help identify permanent housing solutions.

“The creation of this safe parking lot demonstrates that the County of San Diego is finally stepping up in a meaningful way to address homelessness in East County. Only when agencies and cities work together, can we make a meaningful difference in tackling our region’s homelessness crisis,” Anderson said.

Jiménez said the new setup— which requires a working car and does not allow tents or recreational vehicles in the lot— is not intended as a replacement for the former tent encampment.

The encampment was a bitter source of negative attention which El Cajon City Manager Graham Mitchell addressed in a March 24 video which informed residents the lot is actually on unincorporated county land.

“Per capita, El Cajon has more shelters than any city in the county and is spending the most on homelessness services in East County,” Anderson said.

In an effort to connect residents and business owners in the area with the county’s approach to using the lot for overnight parking, HSEC representatives held community engagement sessions prior to opening the lot, Jiménez said, and worked alongside the East County Regional Task Force on Homelessness to reach locals through social media.

“People staying in their cars have often just become homeless. They might need car repairs or maybe they recently lost their job,” Jiménez said, but have potential to effectively improve their situation with assistance.

First-time homelessness nearly doubled in 2021, according to the Point in Time count which tallies the number of unsheltered residents across the county by census blocks on one given night.

Jiménez also said the HSEC team “is constantly aware of other solutions” for residents if the 17-space lot reaches capacity, as well as those who have no car or have been homeless for a longer time frame.

Director of Health and Human Services Nick Macchione said “the individualized outreach that took place here will be the model for the rest of the county” and additional options are being explored throughout East County.

The safe lot is funded by American Rescue Plan Act funding for a six-month stint while the county seeks a partnership to continue the project indefinitely.